Art Infusion

Local artists look to beef up market in Midtown

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

Owner Frank Roberts and curator Janice Nabors Raiteri have opened Gallery Fifty Six inside the former location of Artists on Central at 2256 Central Ave.  Photo: Lance Murphey

Frank Roberts, the owner of nine businesses in six buildings known collectively as The Palladio Group, understands the way to best use retail space.

When his tenant at 2256 Central Ave., Artists on Central, with its various art vendors and flea market feel, fell on difficult times in 2008, Roberts felt that the century-old house could be used better. He wanted to upgrade the offerings and inject the Cooper-Young area with fine art.

“Artists on Central had an image that was not consistent, nor could it be made consistent with our vision, and where there’s no vision, people perish,” said Roberts, whose background is in architecture and homebuilding. “So we wanted to be sure there was a very clear vision and a deliberately chosen and focused point to reach that vision: a true fine art gallery, a sophisticated gallery, not intimidating and stuffy.”

Bigger reach

Artists on Central closed and Roberts, along with his wife, Mindy, and son, Frank, co-owners of The Palladio Group, did $20,000 worth of renovation on the space, reopening as Gallery Fifty Six in April 2009.

“We closed Artists on Central and we remodeled the building,” he said. “We gutted the building and visually remodeled the building and physically, structurally did a lot of repairs.”

The showroom is more than 3,000 square feet and is on the north side of Central between Cooper and East Parkway, within walking distance of Roberts’ other shops.

Roberts and his curator, Janice Nabors Raiteri, try to keep the artwork for sale in the $500 to $2,500 range.

“We want to be a place where you can get art that’s a step above, show art that is a good investment because they’re all up-and-coming artists,” said Raiteri. “We’re filling a niche; it seems like in Memphis you’ve either got bohemian, for lack of a better word, galleries, or the real upscale galleries where not everybody feels comfortable.

“We’re trying to do a place with a lot of space and a lot of good art that anyone feels comfortable coming into and looking around, and I’m always full of advice and suggestions.”

In addition to visiting artists, there are 17 resident artists whose work is displayed throughout the year.

“Certainly it’s been a challenging two years for art galleries everywhere in this economy,” said Linda Ross, owner of L. Ross Gallery in East Memphis. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of wonderful artists in Memphis and in the region, so I think there is always room for another gallery. Memphians really do appreciate art and they continue to come out. … The enthusiasm is there and that keeps you going.”

Adding to the portfolio

Gallery Fifty Six is the newest jewel in the crown of The Palladio Group, where an amalgam of antiques, showrooms, decorative outdoor items and even lunch can be found at Market Central, WaterWorks, Café Palladio and Art Factory.

“I think Frank is doing a great job over there; Gallery Fifty Six is definitely a lot more upscale than that area used to have,” said Tamara Walker, director of the Cooper-Young Business Association. “He absolutely is like a one man pioneer over there.”

The gallery is solely for the showing and selling of fine art, commanding an autonomy of its own within The Palladio Group family.

“It’s a different animal, it’s dedicated to art where the other showrooms we have are a mix of things and it tends to be people coming for a variety of things,” Roberts said. “If you want a fountain, you go to WaterWorks; furniture, you go to Market Central or Palladio; and this just has a focus to itself because of what it’s offering. This will attract more collectors of art.”

As part of promoting their own venture, Roberts and Raiteri are interested in creating an arts night out of sorts, a companion to the Cooper-Young night out on the first Thursday of every month which, they say, tends to be geared more toward restaurants and bars.

Their idea would be more easily compared with the South Main Association’s Trolley Night Downtown on the last Friday of the month.

“We feel like we’re becoming more of a destination even for out-of-town people,” Raiteri said. “If they’re staying Downtown, it’s worth the trip to Central and Cooper and they can just wear themselves out going to antique places and our gallery, and hopefully in the future we’ll see ourselves working with other galleries in the area to put together a kind of trolley night out.”

“It’s like a little network or family. Most of these people have been here for more than10 years,” Walker said of the Cooper-Young businesses.

Roberts is proud of the family-oriented business he’s built along Central and is continuing to look forward and improve.

“We wanted to make a clean break from the past,” Roberts said. “Like a butterfly, we had our beginning with Artists on Central. Now, we want to bring to the Cooper-Young area a true, sophisticated fine art gallery.”